By Johan Sandberg MacGuinne
Over the last couple of months, Gállok – an area of huge cultural importance to the indigenous reindeer herding communities Sirges and Jåhkågasska, situated close to Jåhkkåmåhke on Lule Saami lands – has become the physical base of an on-going protest against the British mining company Beowulf and its Swedish counterpart Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB.
Since early June, a group of dedicated activists have been camped next to the road that was illegally made through the area to allow JIMAB access to the area in order to commence their prospecting, and what might have been dismissed as a small interference of no greater importance soon turned into a pan-Saami protest against neo-colonialism on Saami lands.
Shortly after the arrival of the activists, a first blockade was built, which attracted attention from local mine supporters who arrived to the camp armed with axes in order to try to scare away the activists. Two women were at the same time forcefully pulled out of their tents by a local mob, but despite the ruckus, the activists did not leave, instead they initiated a second phase of the protest in which art and music came to play a vital, decolonial role.
On the 30th of July, the police entered the area in order to clear it of protesters. The police claimed that they acted with the permission of the legal system, and consequently did not refrain from using unnecessary levels of violence to remove peaceful protesters from Gállok. Photos of police officers threading on Saami flags – a grave insult to the Saami people in Sweden and abroad – submerged, but as of yet, no official apology has emerged from the police in Norrbotten County. Six protesters were arrested that day, but it later emerged that the police had acted against their jurisdiction. In short one could say that the police had, rather than protecting the rights of the Swedish state’s citizens, taken on the role of a group of para-military rogues employed by a foreign mining company. The dismantling of the barricades however did not so much halt the protest, as fueling it.
After photos of police brutality started showing up in international media, more and more people gathered in Gállok, and the idea to incorporate art into the protest movement was given a bigger and more central role. Artist from all Saami territories arrived and contributed with pieces of artwork that could be incorporated into the blockade. A second attempt to remove the protesters from the area was initiated on the 12th of August, which resulted in if possible even more dramatic scenes. Once again the police acted against their own jurisdiction and used violence to remove the protesters who had attached themselves to the ground with iron bars and cement. That day, the police confrontation almost ended with the self immolation of one activist who was only stopped seconds before he intended to set himself on fire. Once again, six protesters were arrested and released shortly after, but this time the reactions from the public were stronger.
That day, the Saami reindeer herding communities Jåhkågasska and Sirges invited protesters to the area for a meeting that would take place on the 24th of August, and what JIMAB hoped would attract little or no attention soon came to be referred to as the beginning of Sweden’s Áltá. On the 24th of August, more than 500 Saami and non-indigenous anti-mining protesters gathered in Gállok, and a mere week later, the Saami Parliament published a joint statement signed by all political parties in which they called for a complete stop of all new mining projects on Saami lands.
One would have thought that this would have spelt the end for JIMAB’s chances to carry through with their plans – it was around this time it submerged that JIMAB had been using the police to carry out illegal acts – but on the 3rd of September, police once again entered the area, this time to make it possible for JIMAB to bring their iron ore samples out of Gállok. They were not met with silence; children and old people alike met them at the entrance to Camp Gállok, but instead of listening to the voice of the Saami, the police once again started to carry away protesters from the area. The first one to be removed was the 85 years old Lule Saami reindeer herder Apmut-Ivar Kuoljok, and later that day, the Saami politician Hanne Sofie Utsi was dragged away from the blockades. And this is where we find ourselves today; as Saami we are still opposing the mine, and we will continue to oppose the establishment of a mine until the end of time. What will happen now is anyone’s guess, but the risk is that JIMAB will continue to act illegally to secure its own income.